The Little League World Series begins on Thursday, but one player is already dominating media coverage before the first pitch is thrown out.
Mo'Ne Davis, a 13-year-old female pitcher with a nasty curveball, led her Philadelphia team to the championship series in Williamsport, Pa., where they will compete with teams around the world for the ultimate sandlot bragging rights.
Female baseball players are becoming more common at the tournament. Sixteen girls have played in the series since a Belgian player broke the gender barrier in 1984. This year, Davis and Emma March, a player from Vancouver, will add two more names to the roster.
The Little League World Series isn't necessarily a staging ground for a pro career, but many of the 11-13 year olds who take the field will go on to play baseball in high school. Dozens have made it to the Major Leagues.
But what happens to a player like Davis, who is clearly gifted but playing a sport that offers no professional trajectory for women?
Meghan Sims, 22, knows the feeling. Sims went to the Little League World Series in 2004 with her hometown team from Owensboro, Ky.
Like Davis, she stood out as an exceptional baseball player from a young age. "My mom told me at tee ball I would have unassisted triple plays," she said, referring to her defensive prowess as a young girl. "I was significantly better than any other guy out there."
Sims became obsessed with baseball. She spent hours working on her bat speed during batting practice thrown by her father, who tossed marshmallows, BBs and sunflower seeds to help her hone her eye-hand coordination.
Sims pitches in the Little League World Series. (Courtesy of Meghan Sims)
Sims idolized Mark McGwire, the behemoth slugger who retired in 2001. One day she hoped to join him on the playing field. "That was like my number one goal," Sims said. "I was going to be a professional baseball player."
Her team didn't go far in the championship tournament, however. Owensboro was knocked out in the semifinals, with one win and two losses. But the young team received a hero's welcome when they returned home to Kentucky. Players were met by a limousine at the airport and hundreds of residents cheered for them after they touched down. The town held a parade and residents created a float featuring a giant likenesses of the players — one boy and one girl, to represent Sims.
Playing in a boys' league, Sims endured trash talk from the opposing teams, but she said it never bothered her. "The satisfaction of striking them out made their jealousy worthwhile," she said.
At the airport after returning home to Kentucky (Courtesy of Meghan Sims)
After the Little League World Series, Sims switched to softball. "My dad said that he had been a 13-year-old boy and he didn't want me playing with 13-year-old boys," she said. Eventually she went on to play softball at Murray State University, a Division I school in Kentucky, where she currently majors in nursing.
Sims quit the team last year, at the age of 21. She says the training schedule was overwhelming and she didn't see a payoff in the future.
"I had to pick the most important, softball or nursing," she said. "Nursing wins."
Professional softball teams exist, but they only pay an average salary of $5,000-$6,000 for a three-month season. A woman has never played Major League Baseball.
But as another female phenom makes it to the Little League World Series, it again appears like a matter of time before a woman breaks into the Bigs. Davis' star power has created a buzz around the Little League games— and that hype will only grow if she plays well.
That's no surprise to Martha Ackmann, who has studied the trajectory of women in baseball through history. Her book Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League follows the story of a woman who broke the gender barrier in the former Negro Leagues.
"This is continuing to do a kind of reset of people's attitudes about women in seemingly unconventional places," said Ackmann, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "We no longer gasp at the sight of a girl in a ponytail running out to a pitcher's mound."
Playing for Murray State in 2010 (Courtesy of Meghan Sims)
But can women physically compete with men on the field? Even Sims, who mowed down opposing lineups during her Little League days, says it gets more difficult with age. "When you're young you think you can," she said. "But realistically, no. They're just so much bigger, so much stronger."
Ackmann sees it differently. If girls are shown that it's possible to play baseball professionally — either alongside men or in their own league — they'll be more likely to develop into competitive players.
"They have the talent, there's no doubt that they can play at a very high level," she said. "The culture has to catch up. It hasn't caught up yet."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.